Branching Out: An Interview With Ted Leo

Jennifer Kelly
TED LEO AND THE PHARMACISTS [Photo: Shawn Brackbill]

America's last remaining old-style punk rocker revisits his hardcore, pop, mod, soul, celtic and reggae roots in his fifth and latest full-length. "I knew going into it that I didn't want this record to be as concise as the last one," he says.

The first thing that you need to know about Ted Leo is that he understands music. All kinds of music, not the late 1970s "crusty anarcho-punk"you might expect of him, but soul and rocksteady, celtic folk and British invasion rock. So, while it might give some people pause to sit down one day in a suburban New Jersey living room and try to write a reggae song, it made perfect sense to Leo.

"I had written 'Unwanted Things' more as just kind of a fun experiment one afternoon," he said, in a recent phone interview. "I just said, 'I'll write a reggae song.'" Leo interjected that reggae had always been part of his natural language, a fundamental element of the punk and hardcore scene that he grew up with in 1980s New Jersey and DC. But up until now, he had always folded the unmistakable rasta backbeat into more conventional punk songs. This time, for whatever reason, he went whole hog. How do you go about writing a reggae song if you're not, in actual fact, Jamaican? Leo shrugged the question off. " I think the actual process of that song for me was that I just had this bass line running around in my head to the point of annoyance," he admitted.

Leo's latest album Living With the Living is full of such excursions, the full-on pop hookiness of "Colleen", the hardcore hammering "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb", the Pogues-ish rollick of "Bottle of Buckie". It's his most varied album ever, a fact that he attributes as much to a lengthy recording process as any conscious decision.

"I wrote the record over a pretty long stretch of time," he said. "Most of my earlier records were written over at most a couple of months, cranking it out when the deadline's approaching for the record, you know?" But this time, events intervened. Leo's longtime record label Lookout! went belly up. He toured incessantly. And he began working on another project, writing the score to a play about CIA activities in 1950s Guatemala. Although the play still hasn't been produced, the song "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" comes from it. Before Leo knew it, two and a half years had past since his previous CD Shake the Sheets.

"Because the writing process was stretched out over that amount of time ... I think everyone kind of goes, over a year and a half, everyone goes through different phases of what you're listening to, what you're thinking about," he said. "So to some degree I think that just the length of the writing process kind of organically wound up adding a little breadth to the musical side of the songs." But, he adds, it was also partly intentional. "I knew going into it that I didn't want to make as concise a record as the last one."

Musically, Leo said he was influenced by the same broad palette as always, namely: reggae, older punk, and folk music. Yet even within these relatively familiar genres, he found some new sources of inspiration. "I got really into a band from the late 1970s that I had overlooked in my whole younger punk education. The Tom Robinson Band," he said. The Tom Robinson band was a late 1970s British outfit, whose singer was openly gay. (Their most famous song was "2 4 6 8 Motorway".) "What was interesting about the Tom Robinson Band was that they were really stridently political and specific, and yet, musically they were more on the Nick Lowe end of things," he said. "And, that's always kind of been my formula as well. And so it was really reinforcing, in a good way, that I discovered them."

One of the reasons Living with the Living took so long, Leo explained, was that he found himself having trouble writing lyrics. Always a politically engaged writer, he struggled with how to articulate a world situation that simply had not changed much since his last record. "Shake the Sheets came out in 2004, the election year, and between then and 2006, almost nothing had changed," he said. War in Iraq and Afghanistan continued. The Republicans controlled both houses of congress and the presidency. "It was before all the recent changes of this past fall, before the midterm elections, before all the more public ... before the news media actually started reporting that public support for Bush was eroding."

"Those two years felt like we were in this endless tunnel, just being smacked around by the same horrible stuff," he continued. "And so I found it really hard to engage with this in any way that I could write about that was even interesting to me, let alone anybody else. I certainly wasn't interested in repeating myself, but even if I wanted to, I wasn't inspired to."

Working with playwright Brad Rouse on a play about CIA involvement in Guatemala in the 1950s helped him get unstuck. The play describes how the United Fruit Company convinced the CIA to intervene in Guatemalan presidential elections in 1954, allowing a business-friendly candidate to prevail over a popular, socialist candidate. "That got me thinking down this path, this more kind of broadly historical path," said Leo. "It made it clear that everything that's happening with proxy wars in Iraq and everywhere else is absolutely nothing new. It really goes all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt amending the Monroe Doctrine that allowed US involvement in Latin America. And that, you know, that kind of gave me a new perspective with which to approach writing."

As a result, Living With the Living is definitely an anti-war album, but it is not entirely an anti-Iraq war album. "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb", for instance, which came from the play, describes bombing runs that were made to overthrow the Arbends government in Guatemala. "Sons of Cain", a roughhousing punk rock album highlight, describes a friend or family member who has lost a loved one in war. The songs are less ripped-from-the-headlines political commentary and more meditations on the way that failed government policies can ripple through ordinary human life.

Yet while Leo is serious about political expression, he doesn't let it take over the album. One of the more surprising songs on his new album is very close to a pure pop love song. This is "Colleen", a cut Leo said he had to think about pretty carefully before including.

"That's one of those songs that I had to make a conscious decision to allow to happen," he said. "I had that melody. I was strumming along with it. It just kind of lent itself more to being kind of like a song to a person and in that just interpersonal context, not having to look at it in the larger world view." And why not? Even Leo's hero Billy Bragg gets to put a "Greetings to the New Brunette" next to "Power in the Union" once in a while.

TED LEO [Photo: Shawn Brackbill]

He is clearly pleased by the reference. "It's not that I'm comparing myself to Billy Bragg, but I think that bringing up 'Greetings to the New Brunette' is a really good comparison," he said. "'Colleen' for me is still kind of a serious song. It's not like 'la la la means I love you.' It's actually about somebody who's dealing with some heavy stuff." (The Bragg song is about a young couple struggling with an unintended pregnancy.) Still, don't expect an "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Dah" ditty on any upcoming Leo albums. He makes it clear that "Collen represents just about exactly how far into pop he's willing to go. "I'm kind of excited that I was able to write just a kind of pop song like that, but I don't think that I really even want to go all the way into frivolity," he said.

Leo also explores his Irish roots a little more explicitly than he has in the past, with "Bottle of Buckie", a song Celtic enough to incorporate a penny whistle. Leo says that although his family was Irish and Italian, he actually first came into contact with traditional Celtic music through a school friend with a collection of Irish folk tunes. "Those kinds of Celtic elements are also often there in my music, whether it's like a vocal melody or a guitar solo or whatever, and with that song, it just is more prominent," he said.

And finally, Leo who came of age in the DC hardcore scene but who has never really let loose with the thrash himself, slips in a short, hard punk offering this album in "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb". "That's another thing where those elements are always with me, but I was reined into the more melodic, whatever, edgy pop that generally populates my records," he said. "It felt really liberating to just let that one be, let it be a hardcore song."

Leo recorded Living With the Living in bucolic Western Massachusetts at the Long View Farm studio with Brendan Canty. Canty had produced Leo's 2001 Tyranny of Distance and the pair had remained friends. Leo said that not only did the two of them get along in the studio, they also complemented each other in some interesting ways. "Brendan has an amazing knack for pulling out my unarticulated or unarticulatable ideas," he commented. "He's also really open to trying pretty much anything. He's a great facilitator and a great experimenter."

For instance, Leo said he had very specific ideas about how the drums should sound on Living With the Living, but found it hard to communicate these thoughts. "I can now say that I wanted to muffle the bottom heads because I didn't want any ringing. I can now say that I wanted to try and convince our drummer to not hit the rims," he explained. "But at the time, I was just trying to explain this sound that I had in my head and he being more of an engineer and also, actually, a drummer, was a lot better able to explain to me what I was trying to explain to him."

Leo's band, the Pharmacists, has been with him since 2001 and both drummer Chris Wilson and bass player Dave Lerner played in earlier bands with Leo's younger brothers. "It was really just kind of a pick-up thing when we started," Leo said. "I had been playing mostly solo at that point. But over the years, we've really jelled as a unit and certainly as friends as well. It's gotten to the point -- or it got to the point a while ago actually -- that when I write these days, I certainly write knowing exactly who's going to be playing on these songs. It's been a good six years."

For the tour, starting in the US this spring, Leo will also be adding a fourth member, James Canty, on guitar. Canty has been in a good handful of Dischord bands, most recently in French Toast, and he played with Leo on the 2001 tour as well. Leo said that he's been concerned about the complexity of the guitar parts live (where he has to sing and play simultaneously), and that Canty will help him handle the more nuanced passages easily. "So it's great to have James. We played two shows last weekend and I think it's been sounding really good," said Leo. And do those pop and reggae and Irish songs slow things down? He insisted no. "I am happy to report that there's no real letting up. Everything's generally fast and rocking."





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